George Orwell

Free Speech and its Discontents: Part One


Freedom of speech is to liberal democracies what air is to a person: if either one is cut off, the body begins to asphyxiate. The largely unfettered right to speak freely is a necessary and fundamental feature of modern Western political culture, without which it could not exist. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that the West’s relative prosperity, technological sophistication and civic stability owe much to the long-standing traditions of open enquiry and the liberal exchange of ideas.

Despite the importance of free speech, however, recent times have witnessed various attempts to circumscribe it. Under the guise, say, of creating a more harmonious society, encouraging “responsible” discourse, or redressing past wrongs, a select few seek to outlaw or extirpate dissenting ideas — dissenting, that is, from the dominant cultural narratives they themselves have propagated. Sadly, it’s often the self-styled paragons of tolerance and compassion who support such restrictions most ardently: progressive elites, who see themselves as members of a kind of moral vanguard, moulding the amorphous mass of society in their own image.

Few Western countries have been immune. Sometimes, activists have harnessed the legislative powers of the state to silence that which they deem offensive or scandalous. Others have sought to create cultural environments on university campuses (so-called “safe spaces”) in an effort to shield students from countervailing ideas and opinions. In a sad twist of irony, they often employ hostile, even violent, methods to achieve their goal of censoring or expelling unpalatable views. Vignettes aside, the ebbing of free speech has been reflected statistically: not so long ago, for example, the Pew Research Forum found that 40% of millennials (those born after 1982, and reaching young adulthood some time in the mid-2000s) thought that insulting speech should be liable to legal sanction.

Australia, too, has been an ideological battleground for conflict over the open trafficking of ideas. Case-in-point: the ongoing debate over Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the pernicious effects it has had on a person’s ability to speak freely. Recent cases involving university students and a political cartoonist have exposed the absurd implications of that law. Similarly, 2015 saw the Catholic archbishop of Tasmania hauled before that state’s anti-discrimination tribunal, simply for disseminating literature which upheld the church’s view of marriage to parochial schools in the archdiocese  (a view which happens to conform to current Australian law). These instances are quite telling, but they are only the tip of a great iceberg — one whose ideological mass remains largely invisible, submerged beneath the welter of everyday events. They are, in fact, products of a long intellectual and cultural gestation,  representing the latest outworking of trends that now significantly shape the character of Western societies. Having been nurtured in progressive and left-wing circles, their effects are being felt beyond the confines of the academy. More to the point, they have succeeded (at least to some extent) in eroding the robust commitments liberal democracies have traditionally had to freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s important, then, to try and understand just how we reached this point, and to uncover the sources of the current ideological ambivalence — even hostility — towards freedom of speech. The above examples will serve as reference points, since their respective features so clearly distill the main currents of thought I have in mind. I suggest we ought to consider at least four main intellectual strands, all of which have gradually, yet inexorably, insinuated themselves into key areas of modern society: scepticism regarding the so-called Western project (of which freedom of speech is a key feature); the popularization of post-modernity; multiculturalism and the rise of identity politics; and a philosophical penchant, endemic within progressive politics, for trying to remake society from above.

None of these trends has operated in isolation. More often than not, they have worked in tandem, mutually reinforcing the distinctive contributions each has had to make in the burgeoning restrictions upon free speech in Western polities. It is easy to see, for instance, how a demoralized perspective regarding the West (given a fillip by Marxian-critical and post-colonial accounts of Western culture) might dovetail with the ideological assumptions that have given rise to certain strains of multiculturalism and identity politics.

On the other hand, I think post-modern thought has had an enervating effect upon freedom of speech through popular dissemination of several of its features. To be sure, it may not have independently led to the restriction of the boundaries of free speech (for one thing, post-modernism resists all meta-narratives and claims to truth, regarding them as ill-fated attempts at intellectual authoritarianism). However, the implications of its basic assumptions have succeeded, I think, in undermining the cogency of the principle, providing the ground for other perspectives — far less conducive to the maintenance of free speech — to substantively challenge this singular Western achievement.

Another little caveat before we move on. It’s sometimes tempting to think that if one has uncovered the origins of an idea, development or phenomenon with which one take issue, the object of criticism has thereby been falsified. Not so. That is what philosophers call a genetic fallacy: the belief that by pointing to the genesis of an opinion, a conclusion regarding its veracity can be drawn. But exposure of origins and exposure of fallacy are not necessarily the same thing. Where the logical and philosophical roots of a particular trend are weak or febrile, I might endeavour to point this out, hoping then that doubt may be cast on the justifications used by current advocates of censorship. I shall, however, reserve more substantive criticisms of those who support such restrictions, or who see little wrong with current laws in this field, for later posts. At any rate, it is crucial that we understand the deeper forces at work within contemporary culture, and how they have helped subvert a key precondition for many of the other freedoms people in the West enjoy.

Doubting the Value of Western Culture: The Voices of Scepticism

In this opening post, I’ve adopted a fairly broad-brush approach towards the issue by surveying the diffuse manifestations of scepticism towards the Western “project” — that is, doubts over the preservation, promotion and consolidation of the fundamental freedoms characteristic of the West. It is an increasingly fashionable mode of engagement with the Western tradition, and for many people, constitutes a basic orientation towards their intellectual heritage. This is true, not only for those dwelling in the rarefied environs of academia, but for ordinary folk, who have bought into a populist version of wariness about one’s own culture. They do not simply express doubts over the spread of the West’s values beyond its traditional geographic boundaries (something that ought to be approached with due caution, of course). Rather, sceptical attitudes regarding the superiority or desirability of key  Western values within the West are on the rise.

Though now a common attitude, the source of such widespread disenchantment lies in certain sections of the Western intellectual and cultural elite. It has long adopted a doubtful, even hostile, attitude towards the values that undergird the Western enterprise — including as they do a commitment to free enquiry, pluralism and the unfettered exchange of ideas. One might call it a kind of internalised cultural antipathy. It’s not a new idea, either. Orwell was alive to this reality, and observed it regularly among the left-wing intelligentsia of his day. His essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, provides a window into his thinking. Reflecting on varieties of pacifism during the Second World War, Orwell argued that the younger breed of intellectual directed his or her opposition in a decidedly partial way, which invariably meant criticism of Western countries for their use of defensive force. According to Orwell (as I read him), the intellectual form of pacifism he identified functioned as a veneer for what was, in reality, anti-Western sentiment.

That sentiment is, even today, linked to a wider — indeed, jaundiced — view of the West as little more than a cesspool of entrenched privilege, structural oppression, economic rapacity, environmental vandalism, and pervasive neo-colonial attitudes. The academic and social theorist, John Carroll, puts it well:

“[The Left’s] carping negativity continues to thrive. [They use] neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find ‘victims’ of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it – so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality.” 

What so distinguishes these critiques is a suspicion, often pervasive and deep-seated, towards Western values. In some cases, it reaches a point of comprehensive repudiation. Some critiques aren’t as bold as Carroll’s rendition, to be sure. Gentler approaches may simply evince a certain ambivalence, or lack of confidence, in the Western project. But underlying many of them is the tacit assumption that, far from being something worth preserving and advocating for, Western culture is morally questionable (at best) or entirely bankrupt (at worst). Having wended its way through the academy, this view has now trickled down to the masses — such that even those who happily swim in the West’s cultural waters may implicitly view it as responsible for little else besides the creation of misery suffered by the benighted recipients of its “civilizing” mission. It’s not that this view is entirely bereft of truth (goodness knows Western actions, past and present, have been responsible for suffering). The problem lies in the fact that it is mischievously, perniciously, one-dimensional.

The foregoing narrative comes in many forms. Critical theory, in both its Marxist and post-colonial guises, has provided much of the intellectual scaffolding for those ready to rehearse their monochromatic story. Post-modernism, about which I will say more, also informs critics’ views. Often,  these intellectual strands can be found co-mingling, making their presence felt across a diverse array of issues. Opposition to the activities of Western conglomerates is one such manifestation. Multinationals are often condemned for the apparent economic ruin they wreak on non-Western peoples (with sweatshops serving as the primary bête noire). Closer to home, Australian government policy towards Indigenous affairs is cast in a similar light, with certain strains of criticism seeking to draw a genetic link between them and historical instances of avowedly racist, colonial practice. Or what of the progressive’s ongoing love affair with dictatorial leaders, especially where they are seen to be heroically defying the alleged predations of the West? This was made clear recently upon the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The tributes that flowed from some sections of the ideological Left (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comes to mind) revealed a curious incongruity: admiration for an authoritarian ruler who ruthlessly suppressed free expression, juxtaposed with wariness — even deep and unrelenting criticism — of their own intellectual and cultural milieux.

So, what does all this have to do with free speech? At first blush, any relationship might seem rather distant. However, when a basic scepticism or suspicion becomes the overriding context for one’s thinking about the West and everything that distinguishes it, it is easy to understand why freedom of speech — one of the key markers of the Western tradition — may be treated with a certain degree of reserve.  Why expend energy upholding something (other than in a heavily qualified manner) that is intimately bound up with what is perceived to be a tainted — even morally spent — cultural system? More than that, if free and open enquiry is viewed as part of a system of moral and political hypocrisy, the progressive critic may well feel justified in trying to actively limit it in some way. Censorship, then, becomes a mark of ideological virtue. Even when the posture of doubt is characterized merely by an oscillating uncertainty towards the propriety of Western culture, that could well be enough to stifle a full-throated shout of support for free speech. And if ideas or issues happen to overlap with the experiences of minority groups (be they ethnic, sexual, or whatever), then misplaced guilt over the West’s chequered history or a fear of cultural chauvinism can easily weaken one’s commitment to it.

In contemporary Australia, themes of racial and neo-colonial dominance seem to inform suspicion of the Western tradition, and drive some of the stronger critics of unfettered speech. Nowhere is this more apparent than in current debates over the balance between liberality in the exchange of ideas, and racial or cultural harmony. It is in the midst of those debates that fundamental ideological and philosophical fault-lines have been exposed. Where conflicts over freedom of speech have touched on matters of ethnic identity, defenders have often been crudely drawn in essentialist terms, portrayed as standard-bearers for the reactive forces of cultural and racial (i.e., White) privilege.

As noted, the debate over S.18c of the RDA provides one particular window into this phenomenon. Take the academic and columnist, Waleed Aly, for example. He recently asserted that those who want to see S.18c repealed (or, at the very least, significantly amended) aren’t really concerned about the legislation. Nor are they defending a principle they believe to be right and good. According to Aly, for those (White) individuals:

“It’s [about] the message that amending it [S.18c] will send to the minorities who take heart from the thought they’re protected. And it’s the message it will send to those of the majority keen to reassert the cultural dominance they feel they have lost.”

For those wary about principles that are part of the Western tradition — connected, perhaps, to a belief in the West’s intrinsic hypocrisy, or to the shameful misdeeds of the past — a purist’s conception of freedom of speech is likely to be construed as a coded attempt to re-assert Western and/or White hegemony. A malaise about the intellectual fundaments of the Western outlook has seen critics like Aly tacitly employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in responding to advocates of repeal or amendment of S.18c. They cast such advocacy as a disingenuous attempt to aggressively silence minority rights, in a réprise of colonial suppression. In other words, a particular defence of free speech is interpreted, not as a principled stand, but as little more than a proxy for an atavistic agenda with quite different goals in mind. Aly is just one instance of this attitude (and a fairly genteel and erudite one at that). He is certainly not alone.

If the key values of the West are viewed as the instruments of oppression, and if the overarching project of which they are a part is seen as lacking legitimacy, is it any wonder that those cultural markers would be met with a basic scepticism? That distrust, whatever its source, translates well into support for restrictions on free speech. Even a demoralised attitude towards Western values — one that does not bear the hallmarks of explicit hostility, but is nonetheless equivocal — can successfully erode one’s ability to defend the principle. Whatever their differences, however, they lie along a spectrum of views. Ultimately, those views gain credence from an ideological perspective that is, at best, ambivalent to a crucial token of the West’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

On Reading

Reflecting upon the ostensibly mundane aspects of life can offer us an immediate window into why we do the things we do. Take reading, for example: it’s something most of us can do (I assume anyone reading this post is literate), and we do it without conscious thought. However, I want to talk about reading as a deliberate habit or pursuit. It’s more than simply a means to an end, even if it might be treated as such. Is it not possible to see reading as valuable in itself, rather than viewing it as a practical necessity to which we must give grudging assent? I am the sort of person who likes nothing more than to spend a night at home, immersing myself in the contents of a good book. Indeed, it is something I positively delight in, and if I am out of the house for long periods of time, I often find myself hankering for something substantial to read. It’s probably fair to say that reading is more than a pastime or hobby for me; if I wasn’t able to read, I think I’d be diminished as a person.

I may well be biased, but I think the beautiful simplicity of delving into the written thoughts of another is something that shouldn’t be shunned because it’s too boring or difficult. Banal though it may seem, reading acts as a gate – a key – into a rich and enticing place, where thoughts are unbounded and words (used well, mind you) are transformed into little nuggets of beauty and meaning. Reading should, I think, be warmly embraced, much as one might cherish the affections of an old and stimulating friend. There is comfort there, to be sure. And yet, one also finds one’s thinking challenged, stretched, subverted, vexed, unsettled, elevated, broadened and illumined. Done well, reading has the ability to make the mind fertile and the heart glow with an unquenchable incandescence.

The intellectual and spiritual lustre that reading evokes is one reason I love to engage in it. But what lies behind this consistent devotion? Is it possible to “deconstruct” that process, and to dive into the mechanics of something that I often do without reflection? Scratch beneath the surface, and it’s surprising what one finds. If I peel back the layers of my taken-for-granted love, what will I discover?

Let’s take what is probably the most basic element of reading: words. Words cannot be separated from reading; the one is impossible without the other. If words are like air, then the act of reading is like breathing. I would even go as far as to argue that an immersion in the world of words is, for me, akin to that most fundamental of human activities. I am drawn to perform both acts by an unconscious, unremitting movement of the will; and when I do so, I know that I have drawn into myself the “stuff” that upholds and maintains life. Words are like that. They contain within themselves the seeds of meaning, thought and wisdom. What would the human person be without these qualities? Strung together, well-chosen words have the capacity to enliven and ennoble a person’s being, just like air inhaled sustains life in his body.

It’s fair to say, then, that I love words, and reading is an opportunity to become well-acquainted with them. I am quite excited when I happen upon a new term or phrase, and dutifully add it to my collection. That way, it will be ready to use when the time comes. Perhaps it’s my careful, assiduous nature, but I cherish the beauty and explanatory power of a well-chosen word. One can achieve a degree of accuracy when language is used widely and diversely. An idea or feeling, previously shrouded in fog, suddenly emerges with crystalline clarity as the selected words supply content to that which was unformed.

It should be absurdly clear that reading is an important aid in this wonderful process. Delving into a book, or essay, or article is like diving into a repository that replenishes and rejuvenates one’s love for language. And one does not even have to read that far before happening upon something that changes and challenges one intellectually (or emotionally – or even spiritually). Words stimulate new thoughts and refine existing ones. I mean, it is often the case that just a single word can unlock another reflection, or trigger the firing of another neuron, or give shape to a formless blob of mental energy. Like sharp scalpels, words enable a person to carve meaning up into fine little slices; what may at first appear to be monolithic and indistinct can, with the proper use of words, be transformed into a dense landscape of undulating significance, where shadow and depth conceal hidden truths, subtle distinctions and neglected perspectives. Through the expansive use of what our language can offer us, we become accustomed to the various shades and hues that dapple reality, like so many rays of warm sunlight passing through a verdant web of leaves.

You can see, I hope, the intimate, interweaving connection between words and thoughts. It’s often difficult to say what comes first: the idea; or the language used to express it. Does the mind first think of the idea, before giving voice to it through words? Or do words themselves act as indispensable agents in the very process of intellectual creation? Whilst ultimate parentage usually remains a mystery, it’s probably a bit of both: our thoughts are inescapably framed and brought to life through language, whilst words are lifeless without the raw materials of an inarticulate notion. If we take this a little further, it becomes easier to see how the character of language can actually shape and structure our thoughts. Indeed, where our language is elegant and our prose is clean, so too are our thoughts likely to be. Conversely, where our language is ignoble, base, squalid or just plain dull, our thoughts are likely to obediently follow. George Orwell seemed to know all about this. Speaking about the mutually reinforcing influences of thought and word, he said:

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form…It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (“Politics and the English Language”, in Essays).

Of course, it is not the case that only those with a dictionary-sized vocabulary can achieve what I am talking about. No, no, no. We should be under no illusions that the academic, the wordsmith and the lexicographer are alone privy to this esoteric art. However, where there is an interest in reading – and, underlying that, an interest in words, language and what they can offer – there is likely to be a corresponding interest in thinking, the art of quietly and patiently reflecting on a chosen topic. One might even say that reading can engender a certain spirit of quiet contemplative passion. Not always; but often. Reading offers, as I said, a gateway into a foreign land of new ideas. It can teach us to consider; to look at differing perspectives, or to meditate upon previously unknown claims to truth. Done attentively, reading gives us the chance to step into the interior world of another’s mind. It can encourage, prod, probe and challenge, inciting us to sift through competing views and vying voices. It can make us more open, more receptive, to things we may never have considered before.

The fact is that reading gives one a chance to learn. By developing good reading habits, the fortunate person has the opportunity to engage in another’s considered thoughts on a matter. Even individual words can contain within them a world of meaning and history. Place them in context, alongside other words, and a glimpse into the author’s internal life is possible. Words – and by extension, reading – form a fundamental link between otherwise isolated minds. And, because we are finite (inhabiting only one plot of time and space at any moment), it is impossible to have access to all knowledge. The only way to tap into new bodies of wisdom and learning is to access those whose minds are immersed in them. That, in turn, is often only possible through the discipline of reading. Undoubtedly, reading opens one up to an expanded world of thought and communication. The mellifluous prose that emerges from the artful arrangement of words discloses an author’s mind. If one is really fortunate, it may bear the author’s soul before the grateful recipient. Moreover, reading an author’s particular thoughts can, with almost accidental ease, stimulate and evoke thoughts of one’s own. Indeed, it is possible to almost feel those new buds of intellectual energy, slowly but inexorably, encroaching from below. As a person draws them in, and turns them over in his own mind, he might find himself accessing that library of words – a little dusty, perhaps – to give shape and structure to thoughts that might otherwise exist at the edge of his consciousness. The process is dynamic, fluid, creative: thoughts blend, merge and bulge before finally coalescing; new words are drawn upon to supply nuance and detail to ideas past and present. The fervent dance between word and thought, language and concept, continues apace, concealed behind the calm expression of the dedicated student.

What I am talking about, you must understand, is more than just the solitary game of playing with new concepts. That is a privileged activity, and should not be shunned. However, if that is all we do, then we are not really allowing ourselves to be enveloped within the totality of reading’s purpose. Rather, I am referring to the joy of formation through reading; the delight of a life changed and shaped as one captures the seed of an idea, and, without allowing it to die, lets it germinate. Not just information, mind you, but true formation. As Don Watson, a former speechwriter to Paul Keating, observed, “…language is capable of expressing more than information: it is a vehicle of the imagination and emotions” (Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language). Now, by itself, reading cannot always succeed in forming a person. Sometimes it may fail to excite the emotions, or nurture the soul. Moreover, there is plenty of detritus out there that cannot contribute to one’s intellectual or spiritual health. I am not advocating a steady diet of literary junk food. But if one is to truly learn – and by that, I mean the acquisition of wisdom that shapes one’s intellect and transforms one’s life – reading well should be seen as a vital element in that noble project.

Of course, this requires discernment, and not a little time and effort. Truth may need some coaxing, and a voracious appetite isn’t always a guarantee that it will eventually be digested. Better is the attitude that says, “I will take the time to mull over this idea; to think about it, understand it and reflect upon it. I won’t instinctively reject it. But neither will I take it for granted that what I am reading is self-evidently true”. The acquisition and reception of truth is always going to be a process fraught with risk. We won’t always succeed, shunning life’s verities, and accepting with relish shadows and darkness. Still, for us poor souls, who are bent towards the truth (but who often fall short), a circumspect attitude when it comes to reading may do more good than harm.

I fear we may have lost the art of reading. Perhaps my love for it represents a yearning for a by-gone period. In our contemporary, internet-saturated age, it seems harder and harder to justify the slow, meandering journey one takes when walking through the worded garden of an author’s mind. Sometimes, it is a precious thing to be able to calmly wade through a work for its own sake – not because there is some practical, specified obligation behoving the reader to complete the task, but because of the sheer, unfettered joy that pertains to the art of reading. Although it might seem pointless, then, this blog post has a serious point: to evoke a sense of wonder and privilege when it comes to what is, for many, a common and joyless activity. If it has elevated the notion of reading in your mind, very well then; if, by reading this essay, you develop a lifelong passion for it, even better. For then you will have learned its chief lesson and demonstrated its subject’s power.